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  • Writer's pictureNicola Graham

White Privilege and my Invisible Knapsack

As I continue this journey of antiracism, I now notice the frequent use of some not-so-new buzzwords. Words that seem to offend and polarize people. I’m talking about white supremacy and white privilege. We’ll come back to white supremacy another time but for now, let’s dig into white privilege.

So, basic definition, what is white privilege? White privilege (or white skin privilege) is the societal advantage that benefits white people over non-white people, particularly if they are under the same social, political, or economic circumstances. Who holds it? Persons who are visually identifiable as white or white-passing.

Let’s simplify it with a cartoon. This artwork from Swedish artist Emanu, below, shows perfectly what white privilege is.

Understanding White Privilege
White, Male Privilege Illustrated

We might all be running the same distance, but my white path only has a few hurdles, that I can most likely run around, and BIPOCs has life threatening, not easily movable, and sometimes physically impossible hurdles.

Before I continue, I want to address what I have heard from white folk, even very close family members of mine. That they didn’t have it easy. Their course wasn’t just a few hurdles, they had to work hard and struggle to earn their life and were poor and beaten down. Yes, I acknowledge that and know that life can be hard for everyone, of all races and classes and sexes and ages. But, what I want to say to them is… you are still white. That even though your struggle is hard, you still had and have opportunities that Blacks and Browns and people of color did not, and do not, have.

I recently read the essay called “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh, and began to see that while I did know racism was a disadvantage, I never thought of how my own white privilege was such an advantage.

This is a quote from McIntosh’s essay that was the big AHA to me, “I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was "meant" to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.”

And yet we as white folk are mostly oblivious to this magical knapsack that we have had access to every day of our white skinned lives. I personally was ignorant to how easily things were for me until just recently hearing this definition of my own privilege and in learning what people without white privilege deal with. But that’s how those with the power want it. This oblivion keeps them in power and continues to raise them up. They want the ignorance about white advantage to remain in our culture so that we can continue our charade of meritocracy – that equal freedom is available to us all. But as I’m learning, I see that this “freedom” is actually only available to a small number of us.

This is why this subject is so offensive to some people. It means we are living a societal lie. That things aren’t earned fairly even if you do the work. That this isn’t a country with liberty and justice for all. That doors open for some people not because of their actual merit. We white folk have lived life with this magical knapsack in some way, no matter what our lives look like, filled with unearned advantages that people of color did not get.

So what do we do about it? Just disapproving of the system won’t change it. I will still be white and I will still have access to open doors and magical blank checks even if I don’t like it. I can start by looking inward and asking myself some questions:

1) “What will I do with this knowledge?”

2) “How can I change the way I walk through life daily, being white?”

3) “What will I do to lessen my unearned advantage or even end it?”

These are questions we all really have to sit with.

I personally have only begun to notice where I take advantage of my unearned advantage. But now that I know of my privilege, I am accountable to it. I will not be ignorant again. I have to do a deep moral dive to see how my privilege my life and really create ways to reduce it. Like the factory farms I talked about last blog, I am horrified I have been a part of this system of oblivion. But I can now choose to not use my privilege and hope to no longer exploit that magical knapsack. I challenge you to do the same and ask yourself those questions, daily.

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